I recalled studying Polytonality in my OCA Level 1 course ‘Music from Present to the Past’. It wasn’t a movement in music history that I really enjoyed simply because I have come to learn that I am a traditionalist when it comes to diatonic, ‘logical’ harmony. I like to hear a beautiful melody line set to a clever yet simple harmony.
Polytonality is simply the presence of two or more tonalities at once in a composition; two tones played concurrently would be bitonal. It became popular in the 1920s and was seen as a logical progression from ‘post-Wagnerian chromaticism’ (Britannica Online).
I have listened to three pieces as part of my research into this movement:
Darius Milhaud’s ‘Hymne De Glorification, Op. 331′
This was a solo piano piece that at times sounded harmonically correct; diatonic. However, most of the time, you were aware that there were more than one tones playing at once and if I’m honest reminded me of a 4 year thumping at the keys to experiment with the sounds; lots of mistakes, lots of clashing notes; horrid!
It was a piece of many contrasts; contrary motion; scalic; extreme registers. Milhaud would hint at consonant harmony at the start or end of a bar and then steer you off track within an instance back to a clashing dissonance.
It wasn’t as difficult to listen to as I had initially expected and it worked; it was very clever. I’m not sure it would be something that I would listen to again. There were hints of Debussy at times, different ‘colours’ created with the overlapping keys, rhythms, intervals, momentary passing consonants – it all reminded me of a shaft of sunlight piercing through a darkened room.
Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Sarcasms, Op.17. 1: Tempestoso’
A dramatically low, loud entry for this piano solo set the scene for what felt like a very angry, aggressive, agitated piece. It was filled with contrasts; registers, tonality, rhythm, dynamics. With the multi tones coinciding, it really did sound like the performer couldn’t find the right notes and I know that Prokofiev wrote the right hand in F-sharp minor whilst the left hand was in B-flat minor.
I could hear elements of Debussy again in this piece, specifically his ‘Golliwog’s Cake Walk’, but it was only fleetingly. I really didn’t enjoy this piece.
Stravinsky’ ‘Petroushka’ (Opening)
This was the only piece that I listened to that was orchestral. It was a very frenetic, energetic, polyphonic piece. Very high flutes and piccolos played a brief melodic motif which was then echoed by the strings over clarinet accompaniment. Stravinsky alternates homophonic texture with polyphonic throughout, moving the short melodic motif between all the instruments. It wasn’t obviously polytonal in my opinion as it did ‘make sense’ harmonically, but it was confusing, very ‘full on’ and the only tune that I could detect moved around far too quickly for it to establish itself and develop.
The first of my two chorale melodies that have avoided conventional harmonisation until the final cadences is as follows:
And it sounds like this:
The second of my chorale melodies is as follows:
And it sounds like this: